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Plato's Enigmatic Lecture 'On the Good' 
Author(s): Konrad Gaiser 

Source: Phronesis, Yol. 25, No. 1 (1980), pp. 5-37 
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Plato's enigmatic lecture ‘On the Good 9 


Aristotle, we learn from his pupil Aristoxenus, used to tell the story of a 
lecture by Plato “On the Good”. Most members of the audience, according 
to the story, were thoroughly disappointed by the lecture because Plato 
treated the Good in terms of mathematics, which they did not understand. 
Recently, much has been thought and written about this lecture by Plato, 1 
but Aristoxenus’ account remains a puzzle. The time, place, form and 
content of Plato’s lecture have been variously conjectured by the 
commentators. The real puzzle, however, lies in the fact that no-one can 
explain why Plato presented such difficult and demanding ideas to an 
obviously unsuitable and unprepared audience. 

The passage, which comes in Aristoxenus’ work on harmonics (Elementa 
harmonica II 30-31), may be translated as follows: 

It is surely better to begin by stating the nature of the inquiry, and what it involves, 
so that with this foreknowledge we may proceed more easily on our chosen way, and 
recognize what stage we have reached and not unwittingly deceive ourselves about 
the matter. 

As Aristotle was wont to narrate (del SuiyeiTo), this was what happened to the 
majority of the people who heard Plato’s lecture On the Good (r^v nepi T&Yadov 
dxpoaoiv). Each came expecting to learn something about the things which are 
generally considered good for men, such as wealth, good health, physical strength, 
and altogether a kind of wonderful happiness. But when the mathematical demon- 
strations came, including numbers, geometrical figures and astronomy, and finally 
the statement. Good is One (xai to rapas 8ti d^adov £cmv gv ) 2 it all seemed to them, 

I imagine, utterly unexpected and strange; hence some belittled the matter, while 
others rejected it (oi pev (moxctTecppovovv tov ^pa^paTo*, ol 8e xaTepeptpovTo). 

And what was the reason? IThey did not know what was coming but went along, 
like argumentative people (ipumxoi), at the mere word. But if someone begins with 
a summary of his lecture, then, I hold, everyone who came to listen is free either to 
give up 3 , or, if he likes, to stay, with the understanding he has already gained . 4 

Hence Aristotle himself, for these very reasons, as he said, used to give his 
prospective audience a summary of what he intended to say, and in what manner. 
Likewise it seems to me better, as I said at the beginning, to have foreknowledge. 

I will also follow Aristotle’s example by stating in advance the course I 
intend to take in my interpretation of the Aristoxenus passage. I wish to 
examine the following points: 


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1. The current state of research. 

2. Later, dubious, descriptions of Plato’s lecture. 

3. Three comic fragments containing references to Plato’s Good. 

4. The content of the lecture (that is, the philosophical question). 

5. The real riddle, namely the contradiction between the public lecture on 
the Good and repeated statements in Plato’s written work that it is impos- 
sible to talk about this matter in a generally comprehensible manner. 

6. Previous suggestions to account for the contradiction. 

7. The problem of the dating and biographical context of Plato’s public 

8. My suggestion for a new way of preserving the existing evidence and 
solving the riddle. 

9. Results and consequences of the investigation. 

1 . 

Interpretation of Aristoxenus’ story must be based on the observation that 
Plato’s equation of Good with One on the one hand goes beyond all 
references to the Form of Good in the dialogues but on the other corre- 
sponds to what Plato’s students wrote on the oral doctrine. Of especial 
importance here is Aristotle’s treatise ‘On the Good’ (flepl TAyadou. Sev- 
eral fragments of this work, which contained a summary of Plato’s Aga- 
thon-doctrine, have been preserved. 5 . As these show, Plato did not treat 
mathematics and the Good in the same way in his lecture as in dialogues 
like the Republic. Instead, he gave a straightforward demonstration of his 
theory of first principles, which remains implicit in the written works. 

Just how paradoxical Aristoxenus’ account remains, despite all attempts 
at interpretation, is well shown by a passage of W.K.C. Guthrie’s monu- 
mental work “A History of Greek Philosophy”, V (1978), 424-426: 

This story from a contemporary or near-contemporary certainly leaves some ques- 
tions unanswered . . . Why should Plato (especially in the light of what he said in the 
Seventh Letter) have taken it into his head to reveal to such an unworthy crowd the 
esoteric and highly technical mathematical basis of his philosophy of the Good as 
Limit and Unity? . . . 

Now the later commentators offer a considerable amount of information about 
the content of what they call the unwritten lectures (or instruction) on the Good 
given by Plato and written down by Aristotle; so much in fact as to lend consider- 
able support to the thesis that they embraced the main points of his Academic 
teaching, over a period of time, on the first principles of his ontology and axiology. 
But can this be said about the unfortunate public lecture of Aristotle's story ? Every - 


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thing goes to show (to adopt a phrase of our Tubingen colleagues) that the 
entertaining tale related by Aristoxenus, if more than bien trouve , refers to an 
incident unconnected with the regular Academic seminars in which Plato ex- 
pounded, discussed and developed with his own pupils the mathematical and 
dialectical basis of his philosophy. Since Aristoxenus gives no hint of the motive for 
this venture into the light of publicity, which Aristotle considered a failure, we 
clearly cannot hope to recover it now. The little that can be said of the content of the 
lecture is repeated as Plato’s elsewhere, so we lose nothing if we dismiss the story as 
a red herring. . . . 

This is a clear formulation of the problem in hand. I do not wish to write off 
Aristoxenus’ story as a red herring, but rather to attempt a better under- 
standing of it: above all, a better understanding of the question which 
Guthrie assumes to be unanswerable from our position: why Plato publicly 
lectured on what could only be understood by pupils of the Academy. The 
attempt seems essential to me since lack of clarity at this point is liable to 
obstruct our correct appraisal of Plato’s doctrine of the Good and of his 
theory of first principles. 

For the last twenty years or so in Tubingen, research has been conducted 
with renewed energy into the oral doctrines of Plato not contained in his 
own writings. A controversy has developed, and the issue is still hotly 
contested by the two sides. The dispute centres on the significance 
attributed to Plato’s oral doctrines in his philosophy as a whole. There can 
be no doubt that Plato spoke of ultimate ontological principles: one of 
unity, which he identified with the Good, and an opposite principle of 
indefinite plurality. The basically indisputable testimony of Plato’s pupils 
— Aristotle in particular (Met. A 6, for example) — refers expressly to them; 
there are also numerous indications in Plato’s own writings which point in 
the same direction. The real question is this: what significance does the oral 
doctrine of first principles have for our understanding of his philosophy as 
a whole and particularly of the dialogues, which have fortunately all been 

(1) On one side stand the Platonists whom one may call the 
‘Anti-esoterics’, because they dispute the existence of philosophically 
important oral doctrines outside the dialogues. This view is maintained in 
an extreme form by the American scholar Harold Cherniss, and in a 
somewhat milder form for the most part by his numerous followers (e.g. G. 
Vlastos, R.E. Allen, M. Isnardi Parente, F.N. Tigerstedt). 6 If Plato had an 
oral doctrine of first principles, say the Anti-esoterics, it consisted merely of 
tentative experimentation which he did not consider worthy of literary 
expression. Anyway, they go on, it is difficult if not impossible to gain a 
clear picture of the theory, since the reports of Plato’s pupils are full of 


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misunderstandings and distortion arising from deliberate systematization. 

(2) On the other side, the ‘Esoterics’ are concentrated at present in 
Ttibingen. 7 We hold the view that Plato intended a systematic synthesis 
and grounding of his entire thought with this theory of first principles, 
which is only hinted at in the dialogues. 8 A theory of this kind, with a 
gradually increasing level of sophistication, seems to us to underlie all the 
dialogues, from the earliest ones on. 9 As for the evidence of Plato’s pupils, 
we believe that they do provide a reliable basis for the reconstruction of 
Plato’s unwritten doctrine, if subjected to critical appraisal and treated 
with due caution. 

The outcome of the controversy hangs on the way in which the surviving 
texts — the writings of Plato as well as pupils’ reports of the oral doctrines — 
can most satisfactorily be brought into harmonious alignment. One of 
these texts is Aristoxenus’ description of Plato’s lecture. Both the Esoterics 
and the Anti-esoterics have used it in their argument, but so far it has not 
been satisfactorily understood by either side — hence Guthrie’s under- 
standable resignation in dismissing it as a red herring. 

Until now, I should add, the Anti-esoterics seem to have been more 
justified in their recourse to this passage of Aristoxenus. According to the 
most probable interpretation of the text, Aristoxenus is describing a public 
lecture and a unique event (see below). It would seem at first sight, 
therefore, that the doctrine of first principles was in no way an esoteric, 
inner-school matter and that the lecture was not a part of Plato’s regular 
teaching activities. I admit for my part that we Esoterics have hitherto been 
guilty of forcibly interpreting the Aristoxenus passage, in order to square it 
with Plato’s inner-school teaching. It has been pointed out with jus- 
tification that this text has elicited confused and contradictory statements 
from us. 10 Perhaps I will be able to repair the damage in this paper. 

2 . 

Apart from Aristoxenus, several later authors may be thought to provide 
additional information about the circumstances of Plato’s lecture. It is 
doubtful, however, whether their testimonies can be referred to the event 
of Aristoxenus’ story. 

(1) Simplicius wrote in his commentary In Aristotelis Physica, p. 151, 
6-11 Diels: 

Alexander (of Aphrodisias) says: ‘According to Plato, the first principles of every- 
thing, including the Forms themselves, are One (to £v) and Indefinite Duality (tj 
dopioTos 8uas), which he called Large and Small (pcya xai pixpov), as Aristotle 


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mentions in his work on the Good.’ And one might also learn this from Speusippus 
and Xenocrates and the others who were present at Plato’s lecture on the Good (ot 
irapeYcvovTO ev tt) Ilepi T&Yadov nXcmovos Axpoaoei). For they all wrote down and 
preserved his teachings, and say that he recognized these first principles. 

In another passage of his commentary (p. 453, 25-31) we read: 

The first principles of sensible objects as well are One and Indefinite Duality, as 
Plato is said to have held. He also assigned Indefinite Duality to the intelligible 
world, calling it Unlimited (frneipov); Large and Small he set up as principles and 
labelled them Unlimited in his discourse on the Good (£v tois Ilepi T&Ytt&ou Xo^ow), 
at which Aristotle, Heraclides (Ponticus), Hestiaeus and other associates of Plato 
were present. They wrote down what he said just as enigmatically as he said it 
(6tveYpa\|/avTO Ta frndevrot atviYpaTtodws, <bs ^ppf|^T|). 

Porphyrius, however, with the stated intention of setting these matters out clearly, 
wrote the following on this subject in his commentary on the Philebus. 

Unfortunately it is not clear whence Simplicius derived the statement that 
various other pupils of Plato apart from Aristotle had produced written 
summaries of his lecture. 11 But there is nothing to disprove it; moreover, 
Xenocrates and Heraclides are accredited with works ‘On the Good’ in 
ancient bibliographies. 12 

Simplicius (and Porphyrius before him) described the lecture as enig- 
matic. That need not mean that it had also struck the pupils who recorded 
it as enigmatic. 13 We may assume that they understood Plato’s 
argumentation without any trouble if he had already discussed the Good in 
mathematical terms in the Academy. 

This brings us to the chief point of uncertainty in both passages of 
Simplicius. Are Simplicius and his sources referring to the public lecture 
described by Aristoxenus — or do they have in mind an internal discourse 
by Plato intended primarily for his best students? (a) Even if Simplicius is 
referring to the public lecture, it is not certain whether he has correctly 
interpreted the pupils’ ‘aide-mdmoires’ on the Good as stemming from this 
public lecture. There may have been a misunderstanding here, (b) It is 
equally possible that Simplicius means Plato’s teaching in the Academy, on 
the assumption that he had lectured once or repeatedly on the Good to a 
small group of students, who used this material for their own records. 

(2) The accounts by Themistius and Proclus are definitely descriptions of 
Plato’s public lecture, but may quite possibly derive solely from Aris- 
toxenus. We read in Themistius (oratio 21, 245 C-D): 


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It did not in the least prevent wise old Plato from being wise on the occasion of his 
lecture in the Piraeus 14 when people came flocking from all around and assembled 
together — not only the townspeople from above but also workers from the fields 
and vineyards and from the silver-works — and when he presented his treatise on the 
Good (tovs riepi T&YadoO 8L£tf|ei Xo^ovs), that the huge crowd became dazed and 
streamed away from the place until finally the audience was reduced to Plato’s 
trusted followers only (xaTe\*n{ev els tovs avvf|dei$ ifuXTjTas tuj nXaTwvi povous to 

Proclus remarks in his commentary on Plato’s Philebus (p. 688, 4-18 

(Interpreters) raise the question whether philosophers should read out their writings 
before an audience, as Zeno did; 15 and they insist, if one does do so, only to read 
material suited to the audience so as not to suffer the same fate as Plato when he 
announced a lecture on the Good (dxpoaoiv ^ayYeiXavTa Ilepi tou dryadoD). A 
great throng of all kinds of people assembled; but when he delivered his lecture, 
they did not understand his argument, and went away one by one until finally they 
had almost all gone. But Plato knew that this would happen to him, and had told his 
followers beforehand not to refuse entry to anyone, since the lecture would still only 
take place before their group (eoeodai -yap [iovuv tujv Yi'uspqjtwv tt|v divoryviooiv). 

One would like to know whether these two late testimonies provide any 
further historical information on Plato’s lecture. That depends on the 
difficult source-critical question whether the accounts of Themistius and 
Proclus derive from Aristoxenus alone, or whether they include an in- 
dependent tradition. In the former case, everything over and above Aris- 
toxenus’ description would be mere imaginative invention. In the latter, we 
could expect additional information, and Themistius’ statement that the 
lecture took place in the Piraeus, for example, might help us understand 
the historical circumstances better. 16 

It seems to me that these two late descriptions are secondary inasfar as 
their apologetic bias presupposes an antecedent critical description of the 
lecture. 17 Themistius and Proclus want to justify Plato’s action, by pointing 
out that he himself anticipated the early, voluntary, departure of 
unsuitable members of the audience. However, the critical account need 
not have been that of Aristoxenus, but may have been contained in a work 
which has not survived to this day. It is not intrinsically impossible, 
therefore, that this or that detail of the two late descriptions not to be found 
in Aristoxenus derives from an equally reliable independent source. On the 
whole though it is more likely that Themistius’ and Proclus’ accounts are 
devoid of any new historical information. 

(3) Finally, there is an extremely short and therefore unclear passage of 
the middle-Platonist Albinus (2nd century A.D.). 18 Albinus records Plato’s 


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view that the highest Good is neither easy to find nor plainly communi- 
cable to all people (cf. Plato, Tim. 28 C), and he adds: “At any rate, Plato 
delivered his lecture on the Good only to a few select associates (iravv yovv 
6Xiyois twv Yvcopijjuov xai tols ye 'TTpoxpideloi rr\s irepL T&yaBov a- 
xpoaoetos peTeStoxe).” I see two ways of taking this passage: 

(a) In Themistius and Proclus we have encountered a (later) version 
which tries to reconcile Plato’s public appearance with the restriction of the 
audience to a handful of pupils. Albinus might therefore represent a 
somewhat earlier branch of the apologetic tradition than Themistius (4th 
century A.D.) or Proclus (5th). His would be an extremely condensed 
version of the story according to which the multitude left early enough to 
allow Plato to address himself to a small band of associates only. 

(b) The other possibility is that Albinus represents a quite different 
tradition, whereby Plato held a lecture on the Good in the Academy 
without public admission. In that case, Albinus would show that Plato 
normally discussed his Agathon-doctrine with his students only, and that 
the public lecture was an exception to this rule. This second possibility 
seems simpler and more plausible. 

I conclude that only the Aristoxenus passage provides reliable evidence 
of a public lecture by Plato on the Good. The later accounts are probably 
derived from Aristoxenus alone (Themistius, Proclus) or possibly refer to 
Plato’s intramural teaching (Simplicius). 19 Hence I prefer to leave these 
later authors aside when interpreting Aristoxenus. 


Let us now take a look at three comic fragments which mention Plato’s 
Good. It is quite possible that their authors, who were contemporaries or 
near-contemporaries of Plato, were referring specifically to the lecture on 
the Good described by Aristoxenus. 20 

(1) In a fragment of Alexis, 21 a Parasite, presumably, or else a hungry 
guest, says: “(I eat anything everywhere), even if they do not serve it up hot. 
The good, as Plato says, is good everywhere — if you get me; and what’s 
pleasant is always pleasant, whether here or there.” 

(2) One gathers from a fragment of Amphis, 22 that a slave is discouraging 
his master from marrying a certain girl: “What good you’ll get from her, 
master, I know even less than the Good of Plato.” 

(3) For Philippides, 23 Plato’s Good is synonymous with the highest 
human happiness: “I told you, you should remain unmarried and live 


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happily. The Good of Plato is this, Pheidylus: not to take a wife, and not to 
risk your luck in still more things.” 

These three comic fragments show that the average theatre-goer in 
Athens had heard of Plato’s Good. It was obviously proverbial for some- 
thing of universal importance, but difficult to understand. 

What is unclear is how Plato’s Good attracted so much attention. There 
are two possibilities to be considered: 

(a) It is conceivable that there was talk of the Platonic Good prior to his 
public lecture — either as a widespread response to passages in the 
dialogues, such as the mention of an Idea of the Good in the middle books 
of the Republic, or through information about the inner-school discussions 
filtering through to the outside world and rousing curiosity . 24 

(b) But it seems to me more probable that the proverbial phrase in the 
comic fragments is an echo of Plato’s lecture on the Good. If so much had 
already been said about Plato’s strange idea of ‘Good’ before the lecture, 
the disappointment of the audience would be less explicable. It is easy to 
imagine on the other hand how, after the event, people would joke about 
Plato’s bad lecture all over Athens, and in the theatre. 

If the latter interpretation is correct, the lecture must have been a spec- 
tacular event leaving a deep impression behind it. The repercussions seem 
to have lasted a considerable time, since the comedy of Alexis quoted is 
datable to the period after Plato’s death probably, and that of Philippides 
certainly . 25 

4 . 

I wish only to deal briefly with the question of the philosophical interpre- 
tation of Plato’s doctrine of Good as One. Platonists have long since 
undertaken the task of collecting the scattered references to Plato’s oral 
doctrines; they have been able to clarify the philosophical sense of these to 
a considerable extent, by comparison first and foremost with Plato’s own 
writings . 26 

The main features of Plato’s doctrine of first principles preserved by the 
doxographers can be summarized as follows. The goodness (&peTT|) of a 
thing is shown by its permanence, beauty, and form. These qualities 
depend on order (Toifcts, xoopos); that is, on a well-proportioned arrange- 
ment of parts within the whole. The basis of order therefore is unity, and 
thence unity or one-ness is the cause of all good, or good in itself. Since the 
world is not all order and goodness, one must reckon with an opposite 
cause: a cause of non-unity, of indefinite plurality, and thence not-good. 


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Everywhere these two principles can be seen acting in combination, with 
one or other of them dominant. This can be observed most clearly in the 
field of mathematics. Arithmetic, geometry, harmonics, astronomy, all 
incorporate and reveal certain rules which show how unity passes into 
indefinite plurality, wherever the apparent multiplicity of the natural 
world may be analyzed into quantifiable shapes, forms and numbers. 

Arithmetic and geometry can be used to demonstrate the progression 
that runs from whole numbers, through various types of incommensurable 
quantities, to the absolutely irrational; harmonics and astronomy to show 
that there is mathematical order in the sensible world: in other words, that 
the pleasant sound of harmony is based on numerical relationships, and 
that the movements of the heavenly bodies are not random, but follow a 
logical order. In this way, mathematics became the model-world for Plato 
which showed in the most accurate and general way that all manifestations 
of Arete depend on order, and order on unity. 

The work of modern scientists and philosophers proves that these ideas 
of Plato were not an abstruse game, but rather that they remain stimulating 
and relevant to this day. In 1941, Alfred North Whitehead wrote on the 
theme “Mathematics and the Good”, with express acknowledgement of 
Plato’s lecture on the Good. 27 Whitehead, like Plato, saw good in the 
predominance of order, form and structure, and bad in the lack thereof: 
“The infusion of pattern”, he writes, “into natural occurrences, and the 
stability of such patterns and the modification of such patterns, is the 
necessary condition for the realization of the Good. Mathematics is the 
most powerful technique for the understanding of pattern and for the 
analysis of the relationships of patterns. Here we reach the fundamental 
justification for the topic of Plato’s lecture.” 


If the question of the philosophical sense of Plato’s lecture on the Good as 
One has been sufficiently answered, there remains more than ever the 
question of its historical interpretation: the puzzling thing is why Plato said 
all this in public. Did he not realize that the lecture was bound to be 
unintelligible to the greater part of the audience? 

The public lecture is even more of a puzzle in the light of repeated 
statements in his written works to the effect that it is pointless to present a 
subject as demanding as the doctrine of the Good to an untrained public. 
In order to formulate this paradox as sharply as possible. I wish to point out 
with more emphasis than hitherto, that there is a discrepancy between 


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Aristoxenus’ report and Plato’s own written views on the conditions for 
philosophical discourse. As long as this discrepancy lacks a plausible ex- 
planation, Aristoxenus’ description will remain an unsolved mystery. 

Plato wrote frequently and consistently that for the understanding of the 
highest truths one needs not only special ability, but also long experience 
and training in dialectic. This condition is easily understandable from the 
nature of the subject, which involved the apprehension of ultimate onto- 
logical principles. The universal validity of these principles for all existing 
things can only be shown by demonstrating in as many different areas as 
possible the existence of identical structures and norms, which, by repeated 
comparison and collation, may ultimately be united in an all-inclusive 
synthesis. 28 

In the crucial passage of the Seventh Letter (341 A-E) we read that Plato 
himself never wrote a book 29 on the first principles, 30 and would never do 
so, and that whoever did understood nothing of the subject. For these 
things are by no means expressible in the same way as other subjects (fniTov 
yap ovBapxos bnv <bs &XXa padT|fiaTa), 31 and the apprehension of these 
things may only be achieved by long familiarity (ttoXXti avvovaia) and an 
extended period of guided training of the pupil’s soul. Therefore it is 
pointless to publicize these things in writing or by word of mouth 
(ypatpevTa Xex^evTa), since misunderstanding would be the sole result 
among unsuitable and unprepared readers or listeners: they would either 
scornfully dismiss what was incomprehensible to them, or delude 
themselves into thinking they were the immediate possessors of the highest 

The reason for esoteric reserve, therefore, lay not in the fact that the 
theory of first principles was impossible to formulate orally or on paper, 
but that unprepared persons who were confronted with it would inevitably 
be confused and misled. 

Since the authenticity of the Seventh Letter has been doubted, it is 
important that the same position can be seen in the incontrovertibly 
authentic dialogues. 

As early as in the Republic (7, 536 B-540 C), Plato describes the long 
course of education which leads to apprehension of the Idea of Good only 
after decades of mathematical and dialectical training. 

Likewise in the Parmenides (136 E), truth is said to be attainable only 
after prolonged education in dialectic — and this fact is not known to the 

In the final section of the Phaedrus (275 D-277 A), Plato explains at 
length that the written word is not suitable for conveying ultimate knowl- 


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edge, since this can only grow and ripen over a period of time. 32 

Finally, Plato makes the same point at the end of the Laws, his last work. 
The passage (12, 968 C-E) runs: precise and universal knowledge is only 
attainable through prolonged communion (m>XXrt ouvouoia) of teacher 
and pupils. The essential concepts are not ineffable (diTopp'nTa) in the sense 
of Mysteries, but are indeed ‘unsayable in advance’ (frrTpoppTyra); that is, 
not before the student is able to grasp them for himself, after long practice 
in dialectic. 33 

These passages tell unanimously against a public lecture on the theory of 
first principles such as actually took place according to Aristoxenus, For 
Plato’s primary objections to publishing it in a literary form certainly 
applied just as much to a public lecture. 34 How to explain the con- 

6 . 

First I will outline the previous attempts at explanation and show how 
none of them is satisfactory. 

(1) It does not help to question the reliability of Aristoxenus. Certainly, 
one has to reckon in the passage with Aristoxenus’ hostility towards Plato 
and his desire to make the anecdote more pointed. 35 But this malignment is 
apparent only in the way he judged the lecture — as if the speaker had failed 
by not matching his remarks to the audience. The essence of his account 
must stand as genuine: namely the fact that Plato gave a lecture on the 
Good which was a disappointment to most of the audience. 

(2) Nor does it help to deny the authenticity of the Seventh Letter (with 
Cherniss and many other sceptics 36 ). The discrepancy which makes the 
passage of Aristoxenus so puzzling remains. Even if the Letter was written 
by somebody else, there can be no doubt that this person was so intimately 
acquainted with Plato and so thoroughly versed in the historical situation, 
that the content may be taken broadly speaking as authentic. Furthermore, 
even if one ignores the Letter, it is obvious enough from the dialogues that 
Plato shunned a public exposure of his doctrine of first principles on the 
grounds that it was too difficult to communicate. 

(3) Again, it is impossible in my opinion to relieve the difficulty by 
assuming that the subject matter of oral dialectic within the school was 
distinct from the matters treated in the public lecture. The Anti-esoterics 
tend to argue that the goal of the oral dialectic described in the Seventh 
Letter and several passages in the dialogues was an intuitive understanding 
not describable in words, 37 whereas the lecture had a specific subject and 


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was therefore comparable to the dialogues. Likewise they are wont to 
emphasize that the lecture on the Good was only tentative in character, 
subject to repetition and revision afterwards. 38 “Everything goes to show”, 
however, that the subject was in both cases identical: Plato’s theory of 
ultimate ontological principles. The Seventh Letter does indeed say that 
dialectic is supposed to lead to a kind of intuition, but it also assumes that 
the object of this intuition can easily (or all too easily) be expressed in 
words; indeed, that the highest truth can be expressed with extreme brevity 
(344 E ircivTuv ppaxvTaTois xeiTou). What else can these PpaxvToiTa be if 
not One and Indefinite Duality? 

(4) On the other hand, all attempts to overcome the paradox by 
assimilating the lecture on the Good described by Aristoxenus with Plato’s 
teaching activities within the School have also failed. Even if one assumes 
that there were occasional summarizing lectures in the Academy apart 
from the sessions of dialectic, it is difficult to relate Aristoxenus’ story 
directly to these. 

(a) An unbiased reading of the Aristoxenus passage leaves one in no 
doubt that the lecture was public. Most members of the audience (ol 
‘iiXeioToi twv dxouodtvTwv) were unprepared and taken by surprise — hence 
they were obviously not regulars of the Academy. Nor were they mere 
eaves-droppers who had strayed into the Academy by accident (as was the 
case in the well-known comic fragment of Epicrates 39 ); they had assembled 
in order to listen to a lecture on a specific topic. The time and subject of the 
lecture seem therefore to have been known in advance in Athens. It had 
been announced and was aimed at the general public, who were positively 
invited to attend. Moreover, Aristotle and Aristoxenus were only justified 
in pointing out the failure of the lecture and the perplexity it caused if it 
had in actual fact been directed at the general public. 40 

(b) There is almost as little reason to doubt that a single occasion is being 
described by Aristoxenus. 41 The audience could hardly have come and 
been disappointed more than once. Chemiss was right to protest against an 
“expansion of the evidence” and to deny that “regular lectures” could be 
deduced from Aristoxenus. 42 The recent attempts by the Esoterics to use 
Aristoxenus as a witness to regular lectures on the Good were, 1 have to 
admit, mistaken. 43 

(5) The idea that Plato’s lecture was a deliberate ‘Peira’, or test, is also 
misconceived, in my opinion. 44 Plato had conducted just such an experi- 
ment with Dionysius of Syracuse, as we read in the Seventh Letter (340 
B-341 B). He explained to Dionysius the full difficulty of the path leading 
to philosophical wisdom, in the belief that if he was suited to philosophy he 


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would be spurred on thereby, and if not, turned away. 45 

What Plato said in the Peira was obviously quite different from the 
content of his lecture on the Good: the former consisted of an advance 
warning about the long and difficult path ahead; the latter of a summary 
description of the central doctrine itself. 46 Plato intended and achieved 
with this Peira just what Aristotle accuses him of failing to do as a lecturer: 
preparing the pupil for what was to come 47 Conversely, the lecture con- 
tained just what the Peira avoided: the undiluted doctrine itself without 
any introduction. 

(6) Finally, the attempts to explain away the paradox by the personal 
development of Plato are also unsatisfactory. Our sources do not say when 
in the course of his lifetime Plato gave the lecture. Two diametrically 
opposed views are held by commentators: 

(a) On the one side (particularly among the Anti-esoterics) the tendency 
is to regard the lecture as a ‘lecture in old age’ (‘Altersvorlesung’); i.e. that 
shortly before his death, Plato publicized ideas which had not been in- 
cluded in the dialogues and which he had no more time to formulate in a 
written work. But there is no evidence for the assumption that Plato might 
have changed his mind about the communicability of the highest philo- 
sophical truths towards the end of his life. 48 The final pages of the Laws, 
which contain what amounts to Plato’s last will and testament, and other 
more general factors refute this view. 

(b) The Esoterics are tempted rather by the view that the lecture could 
have taken place relatively early (say at the inauguration of the Academy 
in ? 387 B.C.), and that Plato was persuaded by its failure to limit future 
discussion of the doctrine of first principles to the closed circle of the 
Academy. 49 For various reasons this solution also seems untenable. The 
Seventh Letter emphasizes that Plato had always avoided a public airing of 
these matters. If Aristotle “told time and time again” how Plato fared with 
this lecture, one might assume that he had been present at the occasion: he 
entered the Academy in 367 B.C. Plato’s earliest dialogues show an ex- 
tremely well-developed sense of the limits and possibilities of philosophical 
discourse. Hence it is very unlikely, in my opinion, that Plato ever mis- 
judged the outcome of a public lecture. 


The question of the dating and biographical context of the lecture is so 
important that a closer investigation is required. The view that Aristoxenus 
is describing a lecture in Plato’s old age tends to go with the conviction that 


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the lecture must therefore have been concerned with a late, specific, and 
peripheral aspect of Platonic philosophy which need not be taken into 
serious consideration for the interpretation of the dialogues. H.J. Kramer 
objected, rightly in my opinion, that the difference between the dialogues 
and the doctrine of first principles, which formed the subject-matter of 
Plato’s lecture, may not be explained as a chronological development but 
that they must be considered distinct modes of philosophizing: one written, 
one oral. 

But even if one assumes unbroken synchronization of the dialogues with 
oral discussion of the first principles, one is still left with the problem of the 
historico-biographical occasion for Plato’s unique public lecture; and in 
this point, there seems to me to be more evidence for a late than for an early 
dating of the lecture, as proposed by Kramer. 

As far as I can see, there is not a single passage in the dialogues which 
could settle the matter. More precise criteria for the dating question are 
only to be had from the Seventh Letter. It seems to me that the Letter is 
ignorant of a public lecture and therefore provides an important index for a 
late dating. 

Unfortunately, the authenticity of the Letter has been questioned, and 
that by a number of competent Platonists. 50 Many others, myself included, 
are convinced of its authenticity. For the Letter’s relationship to the lec- 
ture, I think the question of authenticity is relatively unimportant: even if 
the Letter is not by Plato’s hand, the data pertaining to Plato’s situation 
after Dion’s death must be considered true in a historical sense. Moreover, 
if the Letter is ignorant of the lecture, as I believe, it provides internal proof 
of its own authenticity. This line of argument, not pursued by scholars 
before now, may be elaborated as follows. The Letter is ignorant of the 
public lecture. Therefore, in all probability, it was written beforehand, 
since a later writer would certainly have avoided committing Plato to such 
a contradiction. So the Letter must have been written in Plato’s lifetime, 
soon after Dion’s death (354 B.C. - some six years before Plato died) and 
before the public lecture. In that case Plato must be the author, because it is 
as good as certain that no body else would have written the Letter for him 
as long as he was still alive. 51 

On the question of the Letter’s ignorance of the public lecture, 341 DE is 
the key passage. Plato says: “This much I know, that it (sc. the highest 
philosophical truth), whether written or spoken, would best be said by 
myself (PeXtiot’ &v Xexdeui, potential) . . . But if I believed one ought to 
write and could tell it to the Many in an adequate fashion, what better 
thing could I have achieved in my life (iirenpaxT’ &v, unreal condition) than 


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to write down that which is of great use to people and to have brought to 
light the nature of things for the benefit of everybody?” 

I think these sentences could not have been formulated as they are if 
Plato had already made an attempt to publicize the doctrine of first 
principles. This interpretation does not depend solely on a fallible 
argumentum e silentio , since the mention of a failed attempt would have 
directly furthered the author’s purpose: he could then have supported his 
main contention — that written and public transmission of the key doctrine 
is pointless — on the basis of firsthand experience rather than mere inner 

To be in a position to state that public transmission of the doctrine would 
provoke scorn (xaTouppovtiois) or false optimism ({^Xti xod xavv-q £\ms), I 
do not think Plato needed to have suffered any one particular failure. One 
should also notice the other passage in the Letter saying how easy it is to 
appear ridiculous and shamefaced when attempting to give concrete ex- 
pression to the Forms (343 CD). I think this refers to the debates practised 
in the Academy in front of other students — and not the situation we find in 

My conclusion, therefore, is as follows: in all probability the Seventh 
Letter is unaware of the lecture mentioned by Aristoxenus — which, 
therefore, must have taken place after the Letter’s composition, that is, in 
the years between 355 B.C. and Plato’s death (348/47). 

Even if the public lecture was late, as I think, there is no reason to revert 
to the idea of an ‘old man’s lecture’, with the attendant concept of the first 
principles being a last dying breath, as it were, of Plato’s philosophy. 
Rather, in what follows, it will be seen that this lecture in old age can only 
be explained if Plato had for a long time previously held a doctrine of first 

The central problem is not solved by a late dating; if anything, it be- 
comes more acute: why did Plato undertake a venture which he had so 
recently rejected in the Seventh Letter? 

8 . 

I have tried to show how previous theories fail to reconcile the gulf between 
Plato’s professed silence on the first principles in his written work and the 
fact of the public lecture. A better explanation may be sought in Plato’s 
political environment rather than in the man alone. I would guess that the 
stimulus for Plato’s paradoxical public appearance came from the 
Athenian public to whom the lecture was addressed. I would ask therefore: 


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was Plato ever faced with a situation in his lifetime in which he might have 
felt compelled to break his own rule of silence on the first principles? Or 
more exactly — a situation in which the disadvantages of a public lecture 
(namely the disappointment and scorn it would cause) were outweighed by 
the graver consequences of maintaining silence? 

I offer the following hypothesis as a possible answer. There seem to have 
been two external factors which moved Plato to publicize his esoteric 
doctrine of first principles in the final years of his life. 

(1) For many years Plato had avoided airing his doctrine outside the 
company of his closest pupils. But whiffs of the doctrine still reached the 
public and excited considerable interest. When Dionysius of Syracuse, and 
others who had heard something of the doctrine, wrote on the subject, 
Plato realized that continued secrecy was pointless and even disadvan- 
tageous because the public was being informed about his doctrine from 
unauthorized and incompetent sources. I believe he decided as a result of 
this to give the public a genuine version of the doctrine. The intention was 
to invalidate the spurious accounts of others and combat their circulation. 

(2) Plato’s esoteric reserve could easily have been construed as artificial 
secrecy, and have irritated influential members of the Athenian public. 
The exclusiveness of the Academy rankled particularly when one heard 
that the protected doctrines concerned knowledge of the Good and the key 
to happiness. The suspicion might also have arisen that the esoteric dogma 
of the Academy was kept secret because here was a chance for the well- 
known anti-democratic ideas of Plato to be sharpened to a dangerous 
degree. Plato for his part probably realized the danger of this public 
antipathy to his school. As a result, he reluctantly decided after all to 
publicize his doctrine of first principles in the form of a single lecture so as 
to remove the odium of secrecy. He hoped in this way to deflate the 
criticisms and suspicions which had arisen through his exclusion of the 
public. And in so doing he accepted the reverse side of the coin, that many 
people, through not understanding the lecture, would react with scorn and 

How far can this hypothesis be substantiated and verified? First, an 
objection must be met. It is true that Aristoxenus does not mention any 
political or other positive motivation behind the lecture. This can easily be 
explained, however, with reference to Aristoxenus’ and Aristotle’s shared 
motive in telling the story and their wish to streamline the anecdote: they 
both intend a comparison between their own superior teaching-method 
and Plato’s ineffective approach. Hence they only mention the effect of the 
lecture on new and unsuspecting listeners, not on those already acquainted 


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with the difficulty of the Agathon-doctrine. Hence also, Aristotle and 
Aristoxenus ignore Plato’s real purpose which would have explained why 
he neither was able, nor wished, to facilitate matters for the audience. 

I wish now to present the evidence which I think supports my case. The 
Seventh Letter is an important item; I know its authenticity is doubted and 
that my new argument (above) will not convince everybody. Therefore it is 
only one item in the list. More important than the authenticity of the Letter 
for my purposes is Plato’s political situation which is no doubt reliably 
represented in the Letter. My thesis is therefore not dependent on the 
Letter’s authenticity, nor, I hope, will it be unacceptable to those who 
consider the Letter pseudo-Platonic. 

(1) Regarding the publication of the doctrine by incompetent persons, 
we know from the Seventh Letter (341 B) that Dionysius of Syracuse as 
well as others had composed works on the subject. 52 Even if these did not 
bear Plato’s name, they were bound to be connected by the public with 
Plato’s esoteric doctrine. Hence in the Letter Plato forcefully disowns these 
illegitimate and misguided treatises, it being impossible to give an adequate 
account of the doctrine by these means (341 C-E). Plato states: “I know 
this much, that it (sc. the doctrine of first principles) would best be said by 
myself either in writing or orally and that, if badly written, would be 
painful not least to myself’ (341 D). From this statement to a public lecture 
is not too big a step, I think. Plato remained true to his rule of oral 
communication despite his decision about the lecture. He never took the 
further step to a written treatise on the doctrine (which is also ruled out for 
the future in the Seventh Letter 341 C: oi>8e firpTOTE Yeviyrai). 

Dionysius’ work might have been still more embarassing for Plato in 
reinforcing the impression that Plato’s doctrine was anti-democratic. Even 
someone who had not read the work might jump to the conclusion that the 
Syracusan tyrant favoured a doctrine teaching that Good is One since that 
served his autocratic regime. 

In the Seventh Letter (341 E), a public presentation of the doctrine of 
first principles is said to be bound to provoke a false reaction, whether 
scorn (xotTouppovTiois) or false optimism (£\ms). By countering pretentious 
and erroneous accounts with his own lecture, Plato could not help causing 
public disappointment and scorn, but could avoid the worse misunder- 
standing, namely the false impression that ultimate truth is something easy 
to grasp. 

(2) For the second line of argument, we need evidence that Plato had 
public opinion against him in precisely this matter of the esoteric ex- 
clusiveness of the Academy. For most of his lifetime Plato seems to have 


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avoided a head-on confrontation with the ruling powers in Athens. 53 But 
there are indications of conflicts and estrangements, especially in his last 

(a) The Seventh Letter consists basically of an apologia for the events 
leading to the troubles in Syracuse. Plato obviously wanted to persuade the 
Athenians by means of the letter that his friend Dion had intended to 
introduce a legal and liberal system in Syracuse, and that his own connec- 
tions with Syracuse had nothing to do with self-interest or lust for power. 
The Letter as a whole, therefore, shows that Plato had acquired the un- 
fortunate reputation of instigator of the Syracusan revolution as a result of 
the affair. 

Plato carefully states his reasons for withholding the doctrine from the 
public. As he had often said before: it is pointless publicizing such matters 
since they can only be understood after years of familiarity (342 A-344 D). 
This justification permits one the further conclusion that Plato had been 
criticized for the secrecy surrounding his teaching. 

But the Letter would hardly have convinced outsiders on this point. The 
existence of written works by Dionysius and others, mentioned by Plato in 
the Letter, would have indicated rather that Plato could have made every- 
thing public had he so wished. Plato says in the Letter that there was a 
secret doctrine which he was reluctant to publicize — an admission which if 
anything would have increased people’s curiosity. Altogether then, the 
impression would have been reinforced that Plato deliberately denied 
others the knowledge shared between himself and a select few of Good and 
human happiness. In this situation I would guess that Plato decided to put 
an end to the criticism by means of a public lecture. 

(b) Equally instructive in this context is the fact that Plato received 
frequent unflattering attention in contemporary comedy. Seventeen 
passages have been preserved in which Plato and his school are the target. 54 
Aristophon wrote an entire comedy entitled “Plato” 55 Plato probably 
sensed danger in these attacks. In the Apology he attributes a substantial 
measure of the guilt for the prosecution and conviction of Socrates to 
Aristophanes’ Clouds. 56 

The secret goings-on in the Academy seem to have been a favorite butt in 
stage-comedy 57 A fragment of Alexis (fr. 180) runs: “To talk nonsense 
with Plato in private (xara \io vas)”. 58 Elsewhere Plato’s solemn, not exactly 
friendly, demeanour is mentioned (Amphis fr. 13). And we hear that 
members of the Academy were considered arrogant (Ephippus fr. 14; 
Antiphanes fr. 33). 59 

(c) The possibility of taking objection to the elitist atmosphere sur- 


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rounding the Academy is clearly shown in the Antidosis speech of Isocrates 
(or. 15). The orator compares his school with that of Plato (§ 84f.): the 
Academy claims to possess a Good and a Philosophy unknown to anyone 
else; I, on the other hand, teach what is generally recognized; the Academy 
takes in a handful of individuals into its community, whilst I wish to show 
the path of happiness to the entire Polis. The speech was probably 
published in 353 or 352; at exactly the time, in my opinion, that Plato was 
making up his mind to publicize the doctrine of the Good. 

(d) Plato was undoubtedly thought ‘undemocratic’ in Athens. By birth 
he belonged to the aristocracy of the city. And it was perfectly obvious from 
the dialogues that he had the gravest reservations about democratic 
politics. As it happens, we know from a remark in Aristotle’s Rhetoric that 
Plato was not afraid to attack an influential Athenian politician for a 
contemporary cause. 60 The secrecy surrounding the Agathon-doctrine 
might likewise have been taken as a facet of his anti-democratic leanings. 61 

Regardless of the question of the authenticity of the Seventh Letter, it is 
clear that the unfortunate outcome of Dion’s enterprise in Syracuse 
brought a bad name to the Academy in Athens as well. 62 People must have 
thought that the school produced “supporters of tyranny and trouble- 
makers”. 63 Likewise the connection could be made between the Academy 
and the Macedonian dynasty, and perhaps even the expansionist policies 
of Philip, which were an increasing danger to Athens. 64 Some Athenians 
surely began to suspect that these closely-guarded doctrines of Plato were 
directed against the democracy. If the Good in the Academy was supposed 
to be an omnipotent unity as one heard, then this could be taken as a 
programme for monarchical, anti-democratic, policies of more than 
chance interest to the Syracusan tyrant. 65 

Now such political suspicions could not be totally allayed by publicizing 
the doctrine of first principles. However, there are various ways of dispel- 
ling suspicion and logical refutation is only one. It is my opinion that Plato 
gave a valid summary of his doctrine in the lecture, but in a highly 
technical, paradoxical form (aivtyfxaTcoScos). If the people of Athens took 
his ideas for incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo, they would at least cease to 
regard him as a threat and to prosecute followers of such an abstruse creed. 
So he achieved both objectives: protection of his school and preservation 
of his secret for those who were able to understand it. 

(e) If Plato sensed public opinion against himself and the Academy, he 
had to take this seriously ; for he was well aware of disturbing past cases of 
philosophers being persecuted. 

In Athens 66 there had of course been the conviction of Socrates on 


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charges of AaePeia and corruption of the Youth. Anaxagoras and Protag- 
oras, according to one story, had also been charged with Asebeia. An 
important sector of the Athenian public obviously reacted with extreme 
touchiness to innovations in the sphere of religion. 67 Certainly, there was 
respect for the silence surrounding such venerable institutions as the 
Eleusinian Mysteries. But where this prerogative of certain cults was 
apparently being usurped for political ends, public reaction was corre- 
spondingly fiercer (one is reminded, for example, of the political charges 
raised against Alcibiades for desecrating the Mysteries: Thuc. VI 28; 61, 1). 

Most serious from Plato’s point of view was the memory of the perse- 
cution of Pythagoreans in Southern Italy, since his own doctrine of first 
principles was unmistakably related to the Pythagorean tradition. In 490 
B.C. the meeting-house of the Pythagoreans in Croton had been set on fire, 
killing many. This was followed by repeated incidents of persecution and 
banishment. 68 According to Iamblichus’ description (de vita Pythag. 
248-264), the main reason for public antipathy was the exclusiveness of 
Pythagorean society: the excluded became antagonists 69 Plato may have 
feared that his own school, which in so many respects resembled that of the 
Pythagoreans, might meet a similar end to theirs, caused likewise by 
angering the public with the elitist secrecy of their proceedings. 

(f) Various events which followed after Plato’s death show that such 
fears were not completely unfounded. Shortly before or after Plato’s death, 
Aristotle left Athens for reasons which we must assume were political: his 
good relations with Philip of Macedon made it too dangerous for him in 
Athens. 70 At all events, there is reliable evidence that Aristotle fled from 
Athens towards the end of his life (in the year 323), when anti-Macedonian 
feeling posed a threat to his personal safety. 71 A temporary expulsion of 
philosophers from Athens followed the downfall of Demetrius of Phaleron 
in 306 B.C. On that occasion there was discussion in the Assembly about 
introducing the death-penalty for philosophers who founded a school 
without the approval of the Council and Assembly. 72 

If one takes these various pointers together, 73 one can easily imagine, in 
my opinion, how Plato decided to clear himself of charges of undemocratic 
secrecy by inviting the Athenian populace to an open lecture on the 
relevant topics. A large number of people might lose interest in his philos- 
ophy for the future, but that was still preferable to their hostility towards 
the school. 

Historical and personal experience goes to show that the public always 
reacts with wariness if not outright animosity to secret societies, and that 
the best defence against such hostility is to satisfy the curiosity of the 
opponents. 74 


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In conclusion I would first reiterate one methodological premise: namely 
that my suggestion must remain hypothetical, since the evidence as it 
stands does not amount to a formal proof. On the other hand, it seems to 
me the only hypothesis at present which offers a plausible solution to the 
riddle inherent in Aristoxenus. In other words, the only one which offers a 
coherent explanation of the existing evidence. For this reason I maintain 
that one will have to use my solution as a working hypothesis until another 
even simpler solution is found which helps us further towards a full 
understanding of the facts. 

The results and consequences of my investigation are as follows: 

(1) On the basis of the hypothesis I suggest, neither the evidence for 
Plato’s public lecture nor Plato’s own written remarks stating his intention 
not to discuss the doctrine of first principles in public need be played down 
or circumvented. 

(2) According to my view, the lecture on the Good was not a typical event 
for Plato, but rather an exceptional and unique affair. Plato had three usual 
teaching methods: (a) The literary dialogues introduced the reader to 
philosophy by showing him aspects of philosophical question and answer, 
(b) External (‘exoteric’) school exercises for a wider circle of pupils, as 
shown for instance by the comic fragment of Epicrates, 75 taught the use of 
certain methods (especially the dihaeresis-method) for particular types of 
subject. 76 (c) The non-public dialectical discussions for an inner circle of 
pupils were supposed, over an extended period, to lead to a general view of 
truth which encompassed all individual aspects in a theory of first 

The lecture on the Good was exceptional, because here Plato addressed 
his doctrine of first principles to the public, whereas otherwise he kept it for 
discussion within the inner circle of his associates. The exception is no 
longer inexplicable: Plato, as I have tried to show, intended thereby to 
invalidate spurious written versions of the doctrine and to counter the 
criticisms incurred by the usually closed-shop activities in the Academy. 

(3) As we saw above, it is questionable whether Simplicius means, or is 
right in saying, that Plato’s pupils recorded the contents of the single public 
lecture. What surely is right is that after Plato had broken his own vow of 
public silence, his students must have felt more tempted and more justified 
to make their own written record of the doctrine. 

This doctrine had been common knowledge inside the school before the 
public lecture; summaries of the doctrine were probably not unusual, 


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interspersed among sessions of dialectic in the school. 77 Therefore it is 
wrong to say simply that the public lecture on the Good became the main 
source for further dissemination of Plato’s unwritten doctrines. If the 
pupils were reproducing the contents of this single lecture, they could also 
have been drawing on similar summaries given by Plato within the school. 
Other parts of pupils’ testimonials to Plato’s oral doctrines are certainly 
derived from his intra-mural lessons (e.g. Aristotle’s description of Plato’s 
ideal numbers and the school discussion thereof). 

(4) It would be a serious misunderstanding of my position if the reader 
takes a late dating of the lecture to mean that the philosophical content of 
the lecture was a late development. On the contrary, my interpretation 
depends on the existence of the key doctrine within the school long prior to 
the public lecture, which was precipitated by external factors. I think it was 
precisely the difficulties involved in guarding the doctrine from the public 
which finally forced Plato out into the open. Hence, the interaction be- 
tween dialogues and oral philosophy which began no later, and probably 
earlier, than the Republic is corroborated by my interpretation, not called 
into question. 

(5) As a consequence of the interpretation proposed here, I believe that it 
is entirely relevant and permissible to describe Plato’s doctrine of first 
principles as esoteric. 78 Of course, the word esoteric is ambiguous and 
distasteful; it is all too easily connected with the idea of artificial secrecy, 
obscurantism and elitist arrogance. Such a misconception of esoteric in the 
Platonic sense, is, as we have seen, not limited to modern times, but existed 
in Plato’s own day. It was to avoid and overcome the appearance of wilful 
elitism, in my opinion, that Plato decided on a public lecture. By esoteric 
Plato did not mean hidden or mystical; he wished rather to make allow- 
ances for the conditions necessary for the transmission and reception of 
highly specialized philosophical ideas. 79 

(6) That the masses did not understand Plato’s lecture was also proof of 
his contention in the Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter (repeated, presum- 
ably after the lecture, at Laws 12, 968 DE) that esotericism in these matters 
was justified. The rejection by modern-day Anti-esoteric Platonists of the 
indirect evidence for Plato’s oral doctrine reminds me in a certain way of 
the audience’s disappointed dismissal of Plato’s enigmatic lecture. The 
philosophical sense of the Platonic doctrine of first principles was, and is, 
not to be grasped from a brief summary (even briefer for us owing to the 
fragmentary state of the evidence). 80 

(7) If I am right, the content of the public lecture must have corre- 
sponded to the inner-school doctrine of first principles, though not with its 


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didactic method. The correspondence seems to me guaranteed by the fact 
that Plato could only achieve his political goal if he genuinely presented 
those doctrines in his lecture which had previously been discussed ex- 
clusively in the closed circle of his pupils. It is inconceivable that Plato and 
his pupils deliberately tricked the public in this respect. 

Thus the lecture on the Good contradicts the usual view of the Anti- 
esoterics, that if there were certain unwritten doctrines behind the literary 
dialogues, then these were not fully developed theories, but only tentative 
and provisional experiments not yet ripe for publication. Certainly there 
had been such in the Academy. But the core of Plato’s oral doctrine 
consisted of a coherent and mature theory of first principles — otherwise it 
could not have been presented as a whole in the form of a lecture. The fact 
that they were not treated in the dialogues must therefore be explained by 
the hermeneutic reasons given by Plato himself in the Phaedrus and 
Seventh Letter. 

(8) If my interpretation of Plato’s lecture on the Good is historically and 
biographically correct, the lecture itself disposes of an argument consist- 
ently raised against the position of the Esoterics. 81 The argument goes: the 
Esoterics’ position is discredited by the Seventh Letter, which they are so 
fond of quoting. For this says: anyone who writes on the theory of first 
principles understands nothing about it. And when the Seventh Letter says 
that highest knowledge is acquired by intuitive inspiration and may not be 
spoken about like other matters (fnrjTov -yap ouSapcos £otiv aXXa 
pa\hf||iaTa 341 C), then this means, they say, that it cannot be expressed in 
words at all. This argument may now be countered not only by the Seventh 
Letter itself, but also with reference to the lecture on the Good: for Plato, 
the doctrine of first principles was not ‘inexpressible’, but could perfectly 
well be formulated and presented as a theory. The difficulty which Plato 
had in mind lay in the fact that the theory could not be satisfactorily 
conveyed by a short, dogmatic, summary, since it needed years of mental 
preparation. Modern Platonists who try to give a doxographical account of 
his doctrine of first principles therefore only transgress Plato’s convictions 
if they give the impression, and themselves believe, that philosophical 
insight can be given or gained in this way. 

Plato’s first principles, as he himself often said, can only be understood 
in depth via the long course of oral dialectic. All the same, the pupils’ 
accounts of the lecture on the Good give us an idea of what was aimed at in 
the dialectic practised in the Academy. And I am convinced that with this 
idea we are in a better position to understand Plato’s dialogues, that is, to 
understand the author’s ultimate intention. For the pupils’ reports show 


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that the references in the dialogues to concepts which are difficult to 
communicate are not aimed at thin air, but at the School’s doctrine of first 

University of Tubingen 


I am grateful to the British Council and the Universities of London, Cambridge, Leeds 
and Manchester for the opportunity of presenting this paper in seminar form during a 
visit to England in October 1978. Participants in the discussion at these Universities 
sharpened my understanding of the main issues involved; likewise Jonathan Barnes in 
Oxford offered a number of stimulating comments. The initial stimulus for the interpre- 
tation presented here came from a discussion with Ingeborg Schudoma in Tiibingen. 
Subsequently I have discussed the paper with H. J. Kramer and other Tubingen col- 
leagues. 1 was unable to persuade them that my new theory furthered our common cause, 
but their criticisms at least helped me to anticipate the possibility of misunderstandings 
arising from my paper and to try and avoid these by expressing myself more clearly. 

W. D. Furley (Cambridge/TUbingen) managed the translation from German into 
English with great understanding. 

1 A bibliography of the more recent contributions to this subject may be found at the end 
of this paper. - The present contribution is intended primarily to compete with Harold 
Cherniss’ influential book “The Riddle of the Early Academy” ( 1 945), whose first section 
is entitled “Plato’s Lectures: A Hypothesis for an Enigma”. Cherniss’ hypothesis - that 
all the evidence for Plato’s doctrine of Forms and first principles apart from the dialogues 
themselves should not be ascribed to Plato - seems to me not to have explained the 
phenomenon of the lecture on the Good, but to have made it still more of a philosophical 
and historical puzzle. 

2 The conjecture <T>&yadov (Macran and others) is unnecessary. — to iTepas is the subject 
of the sentence according to C. J. de Vogel, M. Isnardi Parente, W. K. C. Guthrie (1978, 
424): “that Limit is the Good, a Unity”. I take to irepas adverbially with H. Cherniss 
(1945, 87 n. 2), W.D. Ross, 1. During, H. J. Krfimer, E. N. Tigerstedt, in accordance with a 
common Greek usage, and as the context requires. Aristoxenus wishes to underline the 
paradox that Plato could have described something as abstract as ‘One’ as ‘Good’. 

3 diTeyivwoxev av with some Mss., and the editions of Macran and da Rios. The others 
have Frreyivwoxev av. 

4 eiXrtp.jievri Marquard (Westphal, da Rios) instead of the Mss.’ eipiipivfl. 

5 References to Aristotle’s Llepi T&yadov are collected in W. D. Ross, Aristotelis Frag- 
ments Selects (Oxford 1955), 111-120. In this work, Aristotle obviously combined a 
record and a critique of Plato’s theory. Cf. J. Brunschwig, “EE I 8, 1218 a 15-32 et le nepi, 
T&yadov” in: Untersuchungen zur Eudemischen Ethik, Berlin 1971 (Peripatoi 1), 
197-222. One sentence of criticism has been preserved (p. 113 Ross, fr. 27 Rose), aimed at 
the excessively high expectations of Platonic theory: “One must remain conscious of 
being human, not only in happiness, but also in argumentation.” — Philip of Opus gives 
us another glimpse of Plato’s lecture on Good as One: Epinomis 99 1 D-992 A (introduced 
by Avorpcn to ye tooovtov • qppa£eiv . . .). 


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6 Guthrie takes a middle line. He believes the esoteric doctrine of first principles is 
reliably attested, but that this ‘indirect evidence’ is useless for our understanding of 
Plato’s philosophy: “. . . (it) will only sow confusion and blur the vivid impression left by 
the dialogues” (1978, 418). 

7 See the works of H. J. Kramer, K. Gaiser, H. Happ and J. Wippern in the bibliography. 
Recently, the same position has been adopted by Th. A. SzlezAk (“Dialogform und 
Esoterik. Zur Deutungdes platonischen Dialogs Phaidros”, Mus. Helv. 35, 1978, 18-32; 
“Probleme der Platoninterpretation”, Gdttingische Gelehrte Anzeigen 230, 1978, 1-37). 
J. N. Findlay ( 1974, esp. pp. 23, 59, 466) differs in seeing Plato’s entire oral philosophy as 
a series of provisional experiments. In his opinion, the lecture reported by Aristoxenus 
was also only an introduction to possible lines of further research. — A detailed discussion 
by H. J. Kramer of new works relating to this whole complex is shortly to appear in 
Philosophische Rundschau. 

8 The concept of ‘system’ proves time and time again to be misleading, because sys- 
tematic thinking is equated with rigid dogmatism (E. N. Tigerstedt 1977, 89-91) — as if 
there was no such thing as an open or dialectical system. 

9 Because important developments took place at the oral level, the dialogues need not 
necessarily reflect the immediate state of Plato’s developing thought. On the other hand, 
there are good reasons for supposing that in the last twenty years or so of Plato’s life, the 
fundaments of his philosophy remained substantially unchanged; see H. J. Kramer 1968, 

10 Justified criticism of my former interpretation of the Aristoxenus passage has been 
made by E. N. Tigerstedt 1977, 70-73; 136-138. 

11 The line of transmission from Aristotle’s critical record via Alexander of Aphrodisias 
(c. 200 A.D.) to Simplicius (6th century A.D.) is clear from both passages of the last 
author. Porphyrius (3rd century A.D.) appears only to have known a considerably 
abbreviated version of one of the records; his intermediate source is difficult to identify 

12 For Xenocrates: Diog. Laert. 4, 13; for Heraclides: id. 5, 87. 

13 See also E. N. Tigerstedt 1977, 138f. (n. 87). 

14 He uses the words \op6s and deorrpov in his account; these could, but need not 
necessarily, refer to the theatre in the Piraeus. 

15 According to Plato’s description, Parm. 127 C. 

16 Only Ph. Merlan (1968, 706), to date, considers the possibility that Themistius and 
Proclus are drawing on a source independent of Aristoxenus. 

17 The derivative character of Themistius’ and Proclus’ apologetic accounts is seen above 
all in their failure to give a clear picture of Plato’s intention: why did he invite the 
multitudes to his lecture if he foresaw their disappointment? 

18 Albinus, Didascalicus 27, 1, p. 129 Louis. 

19 Albinus’ reference is ambivalent. — Themistius and Proclus may have been trying to 
reconcile Aristoxenus’ story with the tradition of Plato’s esoteric school treatment of the 

20 Cf. G. J. de Vries 1964, 708f. 

21 Alexis fr. 152 (II 353 Kock): xav prj irapadwoi Oeppa, T&yaddv nXcmov / 6tiTavTa\ov 
<pTjo’ dryadov eivai, pavdavew; / to 8’ t|8u irdvTtos f|8v xdtxct xdtvda8e. 

22 Amphis fr. 6 (II 237 Kock): to 8’ dryadov 8ti hot’ 4<mv, ov av Tiryxaveiv/ piXXew 8idt 
TotUTT|v, t|ttov ol8a tout’ ^yob, / us Sectttot’, to flXotTiovo? dryadov. 


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23 Philippides fr. 6 (II 303 Rock): eXeyov £yu aoi p.T| yapelv, Iffiv 8’ f|8ecos. / to IlXcrruvos 
dyadov 8* £an touto, 4>ei8vXe, / ph Xap0dveiv yuvalxa, piiSe Tfj tvxh / 8ia irXetovtov avtov 
irapapaWciv irpaypaTuv. Philippides is perhaps referring to Plato's definition of the 
Good as One: to stay single is best. 

24 We are poorly informed regarding the distribution and effect of Plato's dialogues 
during his lifetime. All the same, Aristotle (ap. Themistius or. 23, 295 c-d) said that the 
Gorgias and Republic were read outside Athens even. 

25 Alexis was twenty-five years old at the most when Plato died; by far the greater part of 
his long career took place after this event. Philippides was even younger. The date of 
Amphis' comedy remains uncertain. 

26 The equation of Good with One and its mathematical foundation is not explicit in the 
dialogues. Nevertheless it in no way contradicts the contents of these, and is the objective 
consequence of many passages in Plato’s writings. Recently this has been shown from the 
point of view of dialectic by H. G. Gadamer, Die Idee des Guten zwischen Plato und 
Aristoteles, Heidelberg 1978(Sitzungsber. d. Heidelb. Akad. d. Wiss., Phil. -hist. Kl. 1978, 
3). — A summary of the ‘unwritten doctrine' may also be found now in Guthrie (1978, 

27 In Germany, the philosopher and physicist C.F. von Weizsacker has recently treated 
Plato's doctrine of first principles in: Die Einheit der Natur, Mtinchen 1971, 113-115; 
446-491; Der Garten des Menschlichen, Mtinchen 1977, 337-339. 

28 The pseudo-Platonic 2nd Letter (341A-B) also talks of the long course of dialectic 
which only arrives at its goal after many years. Another reference to the same thing can be 
seen in a comparison made by one of Plato’s pupils to “frozen words’’ which only melt 
and become audible after a long time (Plut. mor. 79A). 

29 Plato uses the word avyypappa here (Epist. 7, 34 1C) as in the Phaedrus, where he 
refuses to give a written account of the highest knowledge. The Anti-esoterics consistently 
argue that the word refers only to a systematic textbook, not to the literary dialogues (so 
also Guthrie 1978, 411). But there are contextual objections to this qualification (since 
Plato is speaking generally here of the risk of causing confusion involved in the public 
presentation of specialized doctrines among untrained readers or listeners), and 
linguistic considerations (cf. Th. A. Szlezik, Mus. Helv. 35, 1978, 25f.). 

30 The doctrine of first principles is clearly intended by iTepi wv £yu oirouSa^w (34 1C), as 
the synonymous expression Ta iTCpi qpvaeus &xpa xai uparra (344D) proves. 

31 This sentence (341 C) does not mean: “They are in no way expressible, as other 
subjects are’’. The negative (ov8ap<is) does not refer to the possibility of their being said at 
all (frnTov), but to the way they may be uttered compared with other things (ws &XXa 
pa(W|poiTa). Thus amongst others, E. Schmalzriedt, Platon. Der Schriftsteller und die 
Wahrheit, Mtinchen 1969, 16. Moreover, the negated fnrp-ovmeans may as well as can not 
be said, in the sense of not being permissible (cf. frriTd in Laws 7, 817 D). Plato is 
exploiting the concept of diropp'nTov in the Mystery Religions, signifying that which may 
not be uttered (but all too easily can). He avoids the word duoppriTov itself (cf. Laws 12, 
968 E) because in his case, the censure has nothing to do with mysticism, but is based 
rather on the conditions necessary for the digestion of philosophical truths. The whole 
line of argumentation in the passage shows not that ultimate knowledge is impossible to 
say, but that it cannot be dealt with on a par with other doctrines without grave danger of 
sowing confusion — and therefore should not. This qualitative distinction means that 
other doctrines may be presented and transmitted through the medium of language 


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without further ado, whereas a corresponding presentation of the first principles would 
only be meaningful to someone who had been trained in the art of dialectic. 

32 The possibility of the much discussed npubTepa (Phaedrus 278 D) referring to a 
doctrine beyond the dialogues has recently been demonstrated by Th. A. SzlezAk with 
new argumentation: Mus. Helv. 35, 1978, 18-32. 

33 As in the Seventh Letter, Plato assumes here that the highest knowledge can be 
expressed in a certain way, but that it should not, for reasons not of artificial or religious 
secrecy, but objective necessity. 

34 E. N. Tigerstedt rightly remarks, (1977, 73f.): “Plato’s rejection of writing (in the 
Seventh Letter) applies also to lectures, such as that on the Good.” 

35 On the malicious tendency of Aristoxenus (cf. fr. 43, 61-68, 131 Wehrli) see the recent 
remarks of A. S. Riginos 1976, 199; E. N. Tigerstedt 1977, 71. Aristoxenus does not say 
directly that Plato’s lecture was a failure, but insinuates as much by omitting Plato’s 
motives and expectations for the lecture (see below). 

36 On the debate about the authenticity of the Seventh Letter see below. Section 7. 

37 On the problem of the communicability of Plato’s Agathon-doctrine, see above n. 31. 

38 This line is taken in an unconvincing piece by K. H. Ilting 1968, where he assumes that 
the lecture and the dialogues represented the same level of thought, and that the lecture 
remained a fragment of a system, overtaken eventually by the development of Plato’s 
own thought. — G. Watson (1973, 2-5, 12f., 43, 113, 128, 132) emphasizes the point that 
the lecture on the Good had a tentative character, in order to avoid a devaluation of the 
dialogues relative to the doctrine of first principles. — Julia Annas (Aristotle’s 
Metaphysics, Books M and N, Oxford 1976, 62 also takes Plato’s lecture on the Good as an 
insignificant offshoot in his main development: “The paucity of our evidence for it would 
be explained by Plato’s probable revulsion, during the period of the later dialogues, from 
the kind of bold speculation apparent in both it and the ‘Republic’”. — If this were so, it is 
hard to understand why the lecture was of such central importance to Plato’s pupils. 

39 More on the situation described in the fragment of Epicrates below. Section 9, § 2. 

40 Aristotle’s and Aristoxenus’ comparison of their own lectures with Plato’s seems to me 
inconclusive for the question of its public delivery and length. Nor, incidentally, is it 
impossible that Aristotle gave occasional lectures to the general public. 

41 Most scholars have decided that the lecture was a unique affair for reasons which I 
now think valid. See esp. G. J. de Vries 1968; Ph. Merlan 1968; W. Theiler, “Diotima 
neuplatonisch”, Archiv f. Gesch. d. Philos. 50 (1968), 29-47 (esp. p. 29); E. N. Tigerstedt 
1977, 7 If. Undecided : J. Wippern 1972, XIII; uninterested: G. Watson 1973, 39. 

42 H. Chemiss 1945, esp. p. 2 (against Field, Burnet, Taylor, Robin). 

43 This correction applies only to our view of the lecture reported by Aristoxenus. 
Whether there were classes on the doctrine of first principles inside the school is a 
question which must be answered independently. Arguments for the repetition of the 
lecture described by Aristoxenus may be found in H. J. Kramer 1966 and 1968, 1 13f. At 
first KrSmer believed that textual considerations in Aristoxenus proved the lecture took 
place on several occasions. G. J. de Vries 1968 and Ph. Merlan 1968 raised objections 
showing that the question cannot be decided on textual (linguistic) grounds. Aristoxenus* 
description remains ambiguous in this respect. In his subsequent treatment, Kramer tried 
above all to deflate the argument that the audience could only have been surprised and 
disappointed once. But this argument remains cogent if the lecture was addressed to a 
large public audience. 


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44 This is the opinion of H. Gundert 1968, 89f.: . . die abschreckende Wirkung, Uber 

die Aristoxenos sich mokiert, wttrde gerade dem entsprechen, was eine ireipa beabsich- 
tigt.” Even less convincing is H. DOrrie’s view (1969, 3f.) that Plato had dressed up his 
central doctrine so thoroughly that the untrained person could never have understood it, 
and then, in the lecture reported by Aristoxenus, had “die Probe gemacht, ob dieser 
Schutz wirksam war.” 

45 W. Burkert (Weisheit und Wissenschaft, Nttmberg 1962, 17 - Lore and Science in 
Ancient Pythagoreanism, Cambridge/ Mass. 1972, 18) is right to repudiate the view of the 
lecture as an experiment; see also E. N. Tigerstedt 1977, 73. 

46 Concerning the iretpa with Dionysius, Plato says in the Seventh Letter (341 AB) that he 
had not taught the whole of his philosophy, and had omitted the most important part. 
The lecture on the other hand, with its equation of Good and One, led straight to the heart 
of the doctrine of first principles. 

47 According to the Seventh Letter (341 A), the 'ireipa was intended to protect the teacher 
from the pupifs criticisms on the basis that the latter had only himself to blame after such 
a warning. 

48 O. Wichmann 1966, 647 f. suggests that Plato gave his lecture on the Good prompted 
by approaching death; . . (um) zu der ganzen, ungeheuer umfassenden Frage, die sein 
Leben bedeutet hatte, schliesslich doch noch eine Antwort wenigstens so zu geben, wie sie 
ihm mdglich war.” 

49 H. J. Kramer 1968, 1 12f. inclines towards a relatively early dating before the Republic: 
“Eine relativ frtlhe Datierung der Vorlesung wird auch durch die Art nahegelegt, wie 
Platon in der ‘Politeia’ (506 D 8, 509 C 1) das AyaOov behandelt und die mit Erfahrungen 
des 7. Briefes ttbereinzustimmen scheint.” It is conceivable that Plato’s comments in the 
Republic (also 7, 517 D, 518 AB, 536 B) to the effect that any presentation of the 
Agathon-doctrine would provoke ridicule, reflect Plato’s personal experience of the 
disappointment caused to both sides by such a lecture. However, passages of this kind 
seem to me rather to show that Plato’s multifarious experiences had persuaded him early 
on of the pointlessness of public presentation. 

50 Here are just a few, more recent, contributions to the controversy: (a) Against 
authenticity: L. Edelstein, Plato’s Seventh Letter, Leiden 1966; G. Milller, Gdttingische 
Gelehrte Anzeigen 221, 1969, 187-2 -+ M. Levison, A. Q. Morton, A. D. Winspear, “The 
Seventh Letter of Plato’’, Mind 77, 1968, 309-325; S. Michaelson, A. Q. Morton, “The 
authorship and integrity of the Platonic Epistles”, Revue Internationale de Philosophic 
103, 1973, 3-9; N. Gulley, “The authenticity of the Platonic Epistles”, in: 
Pseudepigrapha, Entretiens Hardt 18, Vandoeuvres-Gendve 1972, 105-130 (Discussion: 
131-14 ;-+ E. G. Caskey, “Again — Plato’s Seventh Letter”, Class. Philol. 69, 1974, 
220-227. (b) For authenticity: K. v. Fritz, “Die philosophische Stelle im siebten plato- 
nischen Brief und die Frage der ‘esoterischen’ Philosophic Platons”, Phronesis 1 1, 1966, 
117-153; L. Brandwood, “Plato’s Seventh Letter”, Organisation intemationale pour 
l’6tude des langues anciennes par ordinateur: Revue 1969, 4, 1-25; F. Solmsen, Review of 
L. Edelstein, Plato’s Seventh Letter (1966), Gnomon 41, 1969, 29-34; W. K. C. Guthrie 
1978, 402. 

51 J. B. Skemp nevertheless considers this remote possibility in: Plato, Oxford 1976 
(Greece and Rome, New Surveys in the Classics, 10), lOf. 

52 Reports of pupils such as Aristotle, Speusippus, Xenocrates, cannot be intended here: 
in the Letter they are described as xvpuoTepoi xpnrn (345 B). 


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53 C. B. Armstrong 1953, 102: “. . . largely because of the skill with which he avoided 
collision with the dominant democrats of fourth-century Athens, suspicions in his day 
never burst into open hostility.” 

54 Bibliography in K.. Gaiser, “Ein Komddienwitz tlber Platon”, Musa Iocosa, Festschrift 
A. Thierfelder (Hildesheim 1974), 62-67. 

55 We possess only a brief quotation from this comedy (Aristophon fr. 8, 11 279 Kock): a 
dig at the ascetic life of philosophers. 

56 Even in the Laws (11, 934 E — 936 B), Plato condemns all forms of calumny in the 

™ This was clearly a well-worn theme in comedy. Aristophanes (Clouds 140, 143, 
254-262) makes Socrates a teacher of secret knowledge available only to privileged 
pupils. But the reproach — which obviously had an effect on the public — applies much 
better to Plato than Socrates. 

58 Compare the N.T. formulation: Mk 4, 10-12: xotTa povas against rots 2£to. It is highly 
doubtful whether the comedy of Alexis fr. 180 was written before Plato’s lecture (cf. n. 25 

59 The anecdotes handed down also abundantly show that haughtiness (nkpos) was 
thought to be a characteristic of Plato: Diog. Laert. 6, 26 (with parallels); 4,7; 3, 39. — 
Arrogance seems also to have been the undoing of Dion of Syracuse (Pseudo-Platonic 
Epist. 4, 321 B, Plut. Vita Dionis 8; 52). 

80 Aristotle, Rhet. I 15, 1376 a 7-1 1. The sentence Aristotle quotes belongs to Plato the 
philosopher rather than Plato the comic poet as has been assumed in the past. Cf. K. 
Gaiser, “Plato comicus or Plato philosophus?” B.I.C.S. (London) 1979. 

61 As early as the Gorgias (485 DE) it is clear that the privacy of Socrates’ philosophical 
conversations with his pupils (and Plato’s even more so) must have been a source of 
annoyance to Athenian politicians. 

62 Callippus, the Athenian who had been responsible for Dion’s murder, afterwards 
addressed an official communique to the city of Athens (Plut. Dion 58, 1). He had fought 
side by side with Dion, and was also known in Athens to have been attached to Plato’s 
school. In the Seventh Letter, Plato washes his hands of Callippus and the deed which 
brought Athens into disrepute (333 D — 334 C; 351 DE). 

63 Cf. Athenaeus 9, 508 D: Tupavvtxoi xai SiapoXoi. 

64 In fact, Philip’s relations with the Academy seem to have been mixed: good with 
Aristotle, but somewhat strained with Plato and others (cf. Diog. Laert. 3, 40). Plato’s 
pupil Euphraeus of Oreus, who (according to the Fifth Letter) had great influence over 
Perdiccas III, the brother and predecessor of Philip, became a confirmed opponent of 
Philip (Dcmosth. 9, 59-62). 

65 A different political suspicion hung over Plato’s closely-guarded Agathon-doctrine in 
Syracuse: there, one feared that Plato wished to remove Dionysius from power for the 
benefit of Dion, by inducing him h ’AxaSrjpeujt to oiumbpevov dya\)dv frjTelv xai 8ia 
Yewprrptas ev>5aipova yevcadai (Plut. Dion 14, 2). 

66 Demetrius of Phaleron could claim in his “Apology of Socrates” (fr. 9 1 -93 Wehrli) that 
the Athenians had never got on well with any philosopher. 

67 Plato was certainly above suspicion regarding Asebeia or atheism, as it was obvious 
from his written works how concerned he was about piety. However, some Athenians 
may have doubted whether the same gods were worshipped in the Academy as in the 


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City; and the old prejudice about scientific explanations — that they are opposed to 
religion (cf. Laws 12, 966 E — 967 E) — may not have been so easy to overcome. 

68 In the mid-fifth century there were further actions against the Pythagoreans in 
Southern Italy. In Plato’s time, the Pythagorean Order had accepted a restricted form of 
democracy, which brought them into conflict with the tyranny of Dionysius I of Syracuse. 

69 Their chief opponent, Cylon of Kroton, was apparently refused admission to the 
society (Iamblichus, de vit. Pyth. 248). Animosity generally arose through people’s 
resentment (qptfovos 254) at being refused admission (252), and at the exclusiveness of 
Pythagorean society (tfiiaojio? 255, 257). Iamblichus was presumably drawing on fourth- 
century sources. 

70 Vita Aristotelis syriaca II § 9 in I. During 1957, 188: “Being frightened by the 
execution of Socrates, he retired from Athens and stayed near the Hellespontus”. It is well 
known that Aristotle’s father had served as physician to King Amyntas III, Philip’s father. 
Cf. I. During 1968, 176f.: “Der Hauptgrund . . . fUr seine Abreise war jedenfalls die 
politische Situation in Athen, die sein Leben geffchrdete.” 

71 Cf. I. During 1968, 180; the most important first-hand evidence is fr. 10 and 11 of 
Aristotle’s letters in: M. Plezia, Aristotelis privatorum scriptorum fragmenta (Leipzig 

72 Demochares spoke for the motion in his speech entitled xara twv <pi\oao<puv 
( Aristocles of Messene in Euseb. praep. ev. 15, 2, 6; Athenaeus 13, 610 e-f; Diog. Laert. 5, 

73 There are several other minor pieces of evidence: (a) Plato often mentions political 
threats to the philosopher (Prot. 3 16 C - 3 1 7 C; Rep. 6, 496 C-E; 7, 5 1 7 A-D; Epist. 7, 33 1 
D). (b) There is little or no certainty in the stories which describe moments in Plato’s life 
when he had reason to fear sharing the fate of Socrates; such peril was supposed to be the 
reason why he fled to Megara (Diog. Laert. 2, 106), why his defence of Chabrias was a 
brave deed (Diog. Laert. 3, 23f.), and why he kept his doctrine secret (Numenius fr. 23 des 
Places, and various Christian authors), (c) Apuleius (Apologia 27) seems to have heard of 
suspicion attached to the Platonic Agathon-doctrine, since he comments that Plato’s 
Agathon was as uncanny to the ordinary person as certain religious creeds (e.g. of 
Pythagoras, Empedocles). 

74 The early Christian apologists seem to have been influenced partly by this design. J. 
Barnes draws my attention (in a letter) to the following example: “In 1649, when the 
Levellers and Diggers were being attacked, Gerrard Winstanley wrote a pamphlet enti- 
tled The True Leveller’s Standard Advanced, or the State of Community opened and 
presented to the Sons of Men’ — a piece designed to show how decent and innocuous the 
Diggers really were.” See G. H. Sabine (ed.), The Works of Gerrard Winstanley (Ithaca, 
New York, London 1941). Likewise the Freemasons have sometimes publicized their 
secrets to allay public suspicion. For example, a book by an anonymous hand in the last 
century was entitled: “Die Freimaurer und ihre Stellung zur Gegenwart. Offne Enthttl- 
lung der Geschichte und Zwecke des Freimaurerordens, nebst einer Abwehr der 
jtingsten Angriffe des Adv. E. E. Eckert zu Dresden”, Leipzig 1? -+ J. van Ess (“Neuere 
arabisch-sprachige Literatur Uber die Drusen”, in: Die Welt des Islams, N. S. 12, 1969, 
1 1 1-125) has examined esotericism among the Druse people, and on page 120 reports on 
an author who broke his sect’s rule of silence, giving as reason his view that evil was being 
said of the Druses because their tenets were not widely known. In University life, we have 
experience of protests occasioned by private conferences which ceased immediately when 
these were opened to the public (and found to be boring). 


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75 Epicrates fr. 11 (II 287f. Kock). He describes the scene in the Academy of Plato’s 
pupils, in the presence of curious visitors, engaged together in the analytic definition of a 
pumpkin. This obviously refers to a preparatory seminar-class, whose form and content 
should be clearly distinguished from the comprehensive theory of first principles, and 
from the unique public lecture. 

76 Exercises in definition (Sicwpems) in the Academy are denoted by Aristotle as e£io- 
Tepixoi Xoyoi (see below, n. 78). 

77 Even if Plato had not given a synopsis of this sort in the school before, one cannot 
doubt that the doctrine already had systematic characteristics. School dialectic sought 
connections to and from the first principles in the most diverse areas; this took place 
within a systematic structure of which pupils were conscious even without an express 

78 The word eaiorepixos appears only in late Greek as the opposite of e^ioTepixos. How- 
ever, Aristotle’s common expression e^wTepixol Xoyoi probably comes from the Academy. 
He does not call the literary dialogues exoteric (as many commentators assume), but 
rather the exercises for a wider circle of pupils mentioned above. Cf. K. Gaiser, article on 
“exoterisch/esoterisch”; in: Historisches Worterbuch der Philosophic 2 (Basel 1972), 
865-867. The word e$wTepixos may originally have derived from the meeting-place: 
Aelian 3, 19 mentions an 'irepniaTos in the Academy outside Plato’s private property. 

79 F. Schleiermacher, G. W. F. Hegel, and more recent Anti-esoterics were therefore 
quite right to object to the idea of Plato artificially keeping an important theory secret, 
and to explain that the difference between exoteric and esoteric was less a question of the 
author’s manner of presentation than of the relative depth of understanding of the reader. 
But they were wrong to reject the possibility of a more general and comprehensive 
unwritten doctrine beyond the dialogues for this reason. The truth is that, in the field of 
oral dialectic as well as in the dialogues, everything could be both formulated and 
expressed, the difference between esoteric and exoteric depending chiefly on the 
receptiveness of the pupil. Plato decided in this situation that he, as a responsible author, 
should in practice avoid the presentation of specialized doctrines to everyone indis- 
criminately — so as to avoid misunderstanding — until finally this policy brought him up 
against public opposition. 

80 There is also the other possibility of course — that one decides (like Aristotle) after 
prolonged study that Plato’s doctrine of first principles is a philosophical illusion, on the 
grounds that any attempt at systematizing reality is misconceived. 

81 Cf. H. Cherniss 1945, 13. 


(of more recent work in chronological order) 

A. N. Whitehead, Mathematics and the Good, in: The Library of Living Philosophers, 
Vol. Ill, Northwestern University Press 1941 = Essays in Science and Philosophy, 
London 1948, 75-86. = P. A. Schilpp (ed.), The Philosophy of A. N. Whitehead, New 
York 2 195 1,666-681. 

H. Cherniss, Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato and the Academy, Baltimore 1944 = New York 

H. Cherniss, The Riddle of the Early Academy, Berkeley and Los Angeles 1945 = New 


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York 1962; German translation: Die Altere Akademie. Ein historisches Ratsel und seine 
Losung, Heidelberg 1966. 

Sir Davis Ross, Plato’s Theory of Ideas, Oxford 1951 (p. 147-149. 244). 

C. B. Armstrong, Plato’s Academy, Proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary 
Society, A 7, 1952-1955 (Part 2, 1953), 89-106. 

I. During, Aristotle in the Ancient Biographical Tradition, Goteborg 1957 (Studia Graeca 
et Latina Gothoburgensia 5), 357-360. 

H. J. Kramer, Arete bei Platon und Aristoteles, Heidelberg 1959 (Abhandl. d.Heidelb. 
Akad. d.Wiss., Phil.-hist.Kl. 1959, 6). 

K. Gaiser, Platons Ungeschriebene Lehre, Stuttgart 1963 ( 2 1968). 

G. Vlastos, in: Gnomon 35, 1963, 650-652 = G. Vlastos, Platonic Studies, Princeton 1973, 
379-398 (On Plato’s Oral Doctrine, Review of H. J. Kramer, Arete bei Platon und 
Aristoteles, 1959). 

H. J. Kramer, Retraktationen zum Problem des esoterischen Platon, Mus. Helv. 21, 1964, 

G. J. de Vries, Marginalia bij een esoterische Plato, Tijdschrift voor Philosophic 26, 1964, 

H. J. Kramer, Aristoxenos liber Platons Ilepi, Tor/adoO, Hermes 94, 1966, 1 1 If. 

O. Wichmann, Platon, Darmstadt 1966 (p. 645-649). 

I. During, Aristoteles, in: Realenzyklopadie Pauly-Wissowa (RE), Suppl. 11, 1968, 

K. Gaiser, Quellenkritische Probleme der indirekten Platoniiberlieferung, in: Idee und 
Zahl, Heidelberg 1968 (Abhandl. d.Heidelb.Akad.d.Wiss., Phil.-hist-Kl. 1968, 2), 31-84. 
H. Gundert, Zum philosophischen Exkurs im 7. Brief, in: Idee und Zahl, Heidelberg 

K. H. Ilting, Platons ‘Ungeschriebene Lehren’: der Vortrag ‘Ober das Gute’, Phronesis 
13, 1968, 1-31. 

H. J. Kramer, Die grundsatzlichen Fragen der indirekten Platoniiberlieferung, in: Idee 
und Zahl, Heidelberg 1968, 106-150. 

Ph. Merlan, War Platons Vorlesung “Das Gute” einmaiig? Hermes 96, 1968, 705-709 = 
Kleine Schriften, Hildesheim 1976, 88-92. 

G. J. de Vries, Aristoxenos iiber ITepi Tor/adoO, Hermes 96, 1968, 124-126. 

H. Dorrie, Spatantike Symbolik und Allegorese, Friihmittelalterliche Studien 3, 1969, 
1 - 12 . 

R. E. Allen, Plato’s ‘Euthyphro’ and the Earlier Theory of Forms, London/New York 
1970 (p. 142-144). 

J. B. Skemp, in: Gnomon 42, 1970, 446f. 

£. de Strycker, L’idde du bien dans la ‘Republique’ de Platon, L’Antiquite Classique 39, 

K. v. Fritz, The Philosophical Passage in the Seventh Platonic Letter and the Problem of 
Plato’s ‘Esoteric’ Philosophy, in: Essays in Ancient Greek Philosophy, ed. by J. P. Anton 
with G. L. Kustas, Albany, N.Y. 1971, 408-447. 

H. Happ, Hyle. Studien zum aristotelischen Materie-Begriff, Berlin 1971. 

J. Wippern (ed.). Das Problem der ungeschriebenen Lehre Platons, Darmstadt 1972 
(Wege der Forschung 186). 

G. Watson, Plato’s Unwritten Teaching, Dublin 1973. 

J. N. Findlay, Plato, The Written and Unwritten Doctrines, London 1974. 


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M. Isnardi Parente, in: E. Zeller — R. Mondolfo, La filosofia dei Greci nel suo sviluppo 
storico, Parte II, Volume 111/2 Firenze 1974 (p. 732f.). 

W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. IV, Plato: The Man and his 
Dialogues, Earlier Period, Cambridge 1975 (p. 2 If). 

A. S. Riginos, Platonica. The Anecdotes concerning the Life and Writings of Plato, 
Leiden 1976 (Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition 3). 

E. N. Tigerstedt, Interpreting Plato, Stockholm 1977 (p. 70-73. 136-138). 

W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. V, The Later Plato and the 
Academy, Cambridge 1978 (p. 424-426). 


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